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The WEST SIDE STORY curse is broken

I finally got my requested copy of the West Side Story Special Edition DVD set from the library, so I’ve finally seen the film (or rather, I’ve seen it for the first time since I was a kid and for the first time in color and widescreen as it was meant to be seen).  Whenever I’ve tried to watch it before, something’s happened to interrupt me before the Prologue ended, so I kept waiting for the phone to ring with bad news or the building’s power to go out or the ground to open up and swallow my TV, but this time the universe cut me a break and let me watch the whole thing.  (I actually did get some bad news on the phone on the same day I brought home the DVD, but it wasn’t while I was watching it.  And that’s a topic for another time.)

I was a little alarmed at first when I got the DVD, since it said on the case that it was in the “original 16×9” aspect ratio, whereas the original ratio was actually 2.20:1, and 16:9 is nowhere near that.  But I did some checking online and most sites said it was 2.20:1 and “enhanced for 16×9 TVs,” although I had a hard time finding out what that meant and I’m still not entirely sure.  Anyway, it looked to me like what I was getting on my regular TV was maybe a little less than 2.20:1, but at least 95% of that.  While there were some group shots where the occasional person on the periphery was cut off a bit, the compositions did seem to fit the frame and vice-versa, so I was definitely getting as close to the complete experience as I can reasonably expect to.

And it was definitely worth holding out for the widescreen edition.  The design and composition and choreography are so tailored for the 70mm widescreen format that the very idea of watching in in 4:3 “fullscreen” (like on the copy Netflix sent me) and missing out on 40% of every shot is a sick joke.  This is a gorgeous movie that demands to be seen at its full width.  Director Robert Wise, production designer Boris Leven, and cinematographer Daniel Fapp did a fantastic job creating a visually stunning film, an intriguing hybrid of vivid theatricality and urban realism.  And though I’m far from a connoisseur of dance, I could tell that Jerome Robbins’s choreography was equally impressive and it would be a crime to cut nearly half of it off the screen.  (I was interested by the dance-fighting in the Prologue, which drove home how similar the disciplines of stunt-fighting and dancing really are.)

It’s also a very beautiful film to listen to.  The songs are excellent, although it’s surprising to me to find that I’m less fond of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics than I am of Leonard Bernstein’s music.  Maybe that’s just because it was early in Sondheim’s career.  There’s still plenty of clever Sondheimian stuff in there, though, creative and surprising rhymes and clever bits of characterization.  (Though in “America” he did overreach himself trying to find a rhyme for “Manhattan.”  Though I think the awkwardness of it was part of the joke.)  Interestingly, I often felt the melody in the songs seemed more Sondheim-like than the lyrics.  Maybe that shows how influential this collaboration was on Sondheim’s later work.  Anyway, Bernstein’s music is great, and I really like the instrumental parts.  I gather Bernstein preferred the smaller 30-piece orchestra of the original play and found the movie’s arrangements for an orchestra three times bigger to be too bombastic and unsubtle, but I just love that big orchestral sound.  (I think a lot of this music resonates with me because we spent a lot of time learning these songs in junior-high music class.  So this is one of those things that I know better than I knew that I know it.  Or… yeah.  Or something.)

Storywise, it’s a little more basic.  It’s a variation on Romeo and Juliet, but slimmed down and somewhat simplified, and with a change at the end that I wasn’t expecting.  There’s some interesting stuff with the exploration of ethnic prejudice and politics in lower-class New York City of the day, but I think it was a little too cleaned up.  Probably street gangs and juvenile delinquents of the 1950s-60s were somewhat less violent than their modern counterparts, but I suspect the film (and play?) toned that down even further to make the characters more sympathetic, going out of its way to stress that the gangs were hesitant to employ weapons rather than fists and that when deadly violence occurred it was unintended.  It felt a little self-conscious, at least from a modern viewpoint.  And then there’s the central romance between Maria and Tony.  It’s kind of hard to take it seriously, since they barely know anything about each other and there’s no real sense of why they love each other except that they’re predestined soulmates or some such thing.  However, it’s entirely plausible as the sort of overly dramatic infatuation that teenagers are prone to (which, really, is kind of the point of Romeo and Juliet).  When I was that age, I was certainly prone to falling hard for a girl and thinking my whole universe revolved around her even though I knew nothing about her beyond her looks — although in my case it wasn’t reciprocated, for better or worse.  So it’s believable that they’d react the way they do, but it’s hard to buy into their viewpoint as being valid or their relationship as being as deep and permanent as they imagine.  And there’s not very much to their characters beyond being madly in love, so they’re not the most interesting parts of the story.

The casting wasn’t my favorite part either.  Richard Beymer is just kind of bland as Tony, and while Natalie Wood is (or was) certainly lovely, I found her a little insubstantial.  But then, I guess she was supposed to be kind of insubstantial and carefree in the first act, and then go to a darker place in the second.  Maybe I made up my mind about her too quickly.  (I also thought Wood uncannily resembled Juliet Landau of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so much so that I wondered if they were related, until I remembered that Landau is the daughter of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.  As it happens, I also think Wood’s sister Lana Wood looks a lot like Summer Glau.) Anyway, as for the rest of the cast, Rita Moreno is certainly the standout, and George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn and the rest of the ensemble are pretty good, but their strength is more as a troupe than as individuals.  And most of them seem too old to be convincing as teenagers, which is ironic, because most of the roles were recast for the film because the Broadway cast was seen as too old-looking.  Simon Oakland does an effective turn as Lt. Schrank, the main adult character and one of the few non-dancing roles in the film (hey, it just struck me that none of the adult or authority-figure characters dance, just the ones who are supposed to be teenagers).  Schrank is a complicated character, sincerely wanting to keep the peace and clean up the streets, but embittered and unthinkingly racist, failing to realize that he’s part of the very problem he wants so much to resolve.  (I’d expected Officer Krupke to be a more major character, given that he has a song named after him, but he was little more than a spear-carrier.)  I was also quite pleased to see the minor, uncredited appearance by John Astin as the social worker “Glad Hand” at the dance; he was his usual charmingly quirky self and elevated a fairly minimal role.

Some of the ’60s conventions here were a bit hard for me to accept, notably the reluctance to cast Hispanic actors in leading Hispanic roles (Natalie Wood was Russian-American, George Chakiris Greek-American), and the practice of dubbing over the actors’ own singing with other performers, most notably (and recognizably) Marni Nixon as Maria.  The DVD set has a documentary that let me hear some of Wood’s own singing, and I liked it better than Nixon’s.  Okay, maybe it was less polished and perfect, but that’s what I liked about it.  It had more texture and personality and felt less studio-packaged than Nixon’s.  Maria should’ve sung like an inexperienced but enthusiastic teenager, not like a professional opera singer.  I know I was getting passionate up above about seeing this film the way it was originally presented, but in this case I’d be willing to make an exception.  I wouldn’t mind getting to see a version that restored the original actors’ singing (where feasible — Rita Moreno was dubbed on “A Boy Like That” because she wasn’t capable of singing in a low enough register).

Of course, a large part of my interest in this film was because it was directed by Robert Wise, who directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a longtime favorite of mine.   And it does seem to me there are some points of commonality between the two.  WSS and ST:TMP are both films that rely heavily on long set pieces driven by visuals and music rather than dialogue (even a lot of WSS’s musical numbers are largely or mostly instrumental).  A lot of people consider that a bug of TMP, but I see it as a feature, a quality that makes it a very grand and cinematic experience.  It makes me wonder if Wise’s experience directing musicals, with their big set pieces, was influencing his choices about the pacing and focus of TMP.  Both films also rely on spectacular production design and sets, and I’m wondering if that striking red overpass in the set where the rumble took place in RSS was the same kind of forced-perspective construction as the horizontal intermix chamber in TMP’s engine room — i.e. building a set component that tapers and shrinks toward the rear to create the illusion of parallel lines receding much farther than the set can contain.

Of course, one clear difference is that WSS is a much more vividly colorful movie while TMP is done more in pastels and grays.  But that was kind of a ’70s thing, and it seemed to reflect Wise’s view of the technological future, the same cool, sterile professionalism you see in his The Andromeda Strain.  That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be drawing on his experience with other films as well.

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